Rachel Grossman talks about dog&ponydc’s Helen Hayes Awards nomination for Beertown and the teamwork that made the show such a hit.
Joel: What were you nominated for and why did you want to be part of this production?
Rachel: I am part of the 17-person ensemble that was nominated for our devising of Beertown for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play. dog&ponydc is an ensemble-based devised theater company, meaning the company creates shows from inception to production collaboratively. Sometimes this is everyone working collectively from start to finish; other times there are smaller teams of ensemble members tackling certain aspects of a production. I like to quote Jon Reynolds: “You know how some people believe two heads are better than one? Well we believe that fourteen heads are better than two.” In this process everyone has an equal stake in the success of a show, from start to finish.
Another conspirator Ivania Stack believes the ensemble process allows for ideas to be developed fully, into the most complete, complex finished versions of themselves in production. The devising process takes on different shapes depending on the production and its point of inspiration. Beertown evolved from discussion around myriad sources and research about small town America, that led to group scripting sessions, improvised storytelling, song writing, dancing, etc. d&pdc takes anywhere from 1 – 3 years to devise full productions. Beertown took 15 months formally (Sept 2010 – Nov 2011, though Wyckham Avery and I had started conversations about the project in June and July 2010.
Joel: Where were you when you found out that you had been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award and what was your first reaction?
Rachel: I was at the HHA nomination ceremony with fellow conspirator Jon Reynolds. He had lent me his iPhone so I could live-tweet the proceedings. I am not used to typing on that small a keyboard/surface and was intently focused on composing a closing/congratulatory tweet when I turned to Jon and said “Wait – did they just say Beertown?” My first officially reaction was a loudly proclaimed “Holy Fuck.” (Later it was tweeted that the expletive was my second reaction.) Both Jon and I were floored as we, and most d&pdc devotes, don’t refer to our work as “plays.” I was shocked and honored.
Joel: What were the biggest challenges for you directing Beertown?
Beertown as a devising project for d&pdc and as a production explores how individuals navigate community. The biggest challenges lay within this. This was the first time the company created a show with pretty much no vision for what the final product would look like. We were determined to develop it entirely as a collective community. This means that as we progressed, at any given point there were 17 different visions for Beertown in production. Negotiating the moments when visions came into “conflict” with one another was, well, hard. Who knew which choice was the stronger one, the one that as going to continue us down a productive path? The ensemble entrusted me along the way with the title “director” which then meant I played referee in these moments. But we “planted flags” along the way that guided decision making, and collectively tried to keep those in mind as the show came into focus. For example: once we determined the function of the antecedents and articulated messages for each one, we had a way to filter through decision making of which antecedents would make it into the final show and which would not. The choices were not suddenly obvious (we created 50+ antecedents and there are 9 consistently performed as part of the show) but easier to make.
Joel: What are some of the fondest memories you have about appearing in Beertown?
The eight of us who performed in the show were always buzzing about the audience conversation of the night. dog & ponydc created this show because of our fascination with the potential directions for the dialogue in act 2, and the dialogue never ceased to amaze us. However the most electric moments were ones when audience curiosity got the better of them and they dug a little deeper into a character’s private matters than is probably appropriate for a public forum like the quinquennial ceremony. The one night when a gentlemen asked after the whereabouts of members of the now-closed brewery staff was heralded throughout the run. It was an amazing, spine-tingling moment for pretty much everyone in the room.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
dog & pony dc is hosting a one-night performance of unseen material from Beertown on June 16th that we’re calling The Dog and Pony Show. More significantly what’s next: we are remounting Beertown this summer in July at Woolly Mammoth’s Rehearsal Hall in conjunction with the Capital Fringe Festival, and for one performance at Round House Theatre Silver Spring’s Over the Line Festival. d&pdc is currently mid-development for our next show, A Killing Game, which will open the week after Thanksgiving at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.